Stupor. In September 1994, Pierre Péan published Une jeunesse française. On the cover, a young François Mitterrand shakes hands with old Philippe Pétain. Not as a sign of allegiance, but because he was campaigning with the marshal to help prisoners of war held in Germany. He himself had just escaped from the Ziegenhain camp. We discovered or rediscovered in the book his proximity to René Bousquet and his passage in the Vichy administration in 1941 before his entry into the Resistance, a period that the person concerned had refrained from mentioning until now.
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« Tell me whatever you want. I need that. It's a man-to-man conversation »
François Mitterrand to Jean-Pierre Elkabbach
After the explosion caused by the release of Pierre Péan's book - during the writing of which the journalist had exchanged with Mitterrand - the president asked Jean-Pierre Elkabbach to come and question him. He wants to explain himself to the French. The journalist reaches Paris as soon as possible, organizes with France Télévisions the conditions of the filming so that the interview is broadcast live. The two men know each other well, they have just turned together long-term conversations, which will be unveiled after the death of the socialist.
Entry into the Resistance
At the Élysée, Mitterrand, then very ill, took Jean-Pierre Elkabbach aside in the make-up box: "Be as hard as possible. Don't let anything pass. Tell me whatever you want. I need that. I am no longer President of the Republic and you are no longer President of France Télévisions. It's a man-to-man conversation." Message heard. The journalist conducts the interview with a strong hand. "I was in a state of extreme concentration: I had to question the president without being impressed and live up to what the French expected," Elkabbach recalled in Les Rives de la mémoire, published in 2022.
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François Mitterrand tells him about his escape from Germany at the end of 1941, and the help given in France by a Jewish family close to his own. The journalist raises his eyebrows: "And you go to Vichy? Why, when there is the capitulation government and anti-Jewish laws, do you go to Vichy and not to London or Algiers?" The man from Latche explains: "The anti-Jewish laws were legislation against foreign Jews of which I knew nothing. We always forget that in all this period I was a prisoner in Germany (...) I was a hundred miles away from knowing these things."
"When did you learn about this status, about the existence of concentration camps?" says Jean-Pierre Elkkabach. François Mitterrand's response: "Little by little. For the concentration camps, I was like all French informed, I did not know much. Many learned all this (...) later, this degree of unimaginable savagery."
A Vichy official, the future socialist gradually moved closer to the active Resistance in 1943 with his network, the National Rally of Prisoners of War, which facilitated the escapes of French soldiers still detained in Germany and transmitted information. The interviewer is not afraid to ask him if this commitment corresponds to "a choice of opportunity". "You talk about an opportunity, I would have liked to see you there!" retorts the socialist. It wasn't a bed of roses, but it was an exciting life. This was done by a natural slope, I had escaped from war, I associated mainly with former comrades (...) We were starting to organize escapes of our comrades."
The responsibility of the France
The president evokes the Vichy administration: "It was a petaudière, as soon as Pétain was appointed, or did he seize power by liquidating the republic in the process, that rushed all the people of the extreme right who had accounts to settle with the Republic or wanted to satisfy their passion such as anti-Semitism (...) Besides that there were many officials impeccable from the patriotic point of view." This statement explains his vehement response to the question of whether the Republic should apologize. "No, no, no, the Republic has nothing to do with it. The France is not responsible either, it is activist minorities who seized the opportunity of defeat to seize power and who are accountable for these crimes," he said.
Thirty years later in Les Rives de la mémoire, Jean-Pierre Elkkabach summed up the feeling given by the words of Mitterrand, who feared, as De Gaulle feared, to revive old wounds. "Atno time, during this interview, nor during our conversations, did François Mitterrand seem to perceive what fueled the painful return of Vichy memory. (...) Like most French people who suffered defeat and occupation, François Mitterrand had not taken into consideration, as it should have been, the terrible fate reserved for the Jews. It is a "man of another generation", Jacques Chirac, who will admit the obvious responsibility of the France.